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Case studies in new ethical challenges in online journalism

Citizen journalist falsely reports Jobs’ heart attack

By Natalie Johnson, Dotcom Journalists

Due to new technology and the Internet, the definition of a journalist is expanding. Many Web sites now provide platforms for ordinary people, or “citizen journalists” to post news they have created themselves. On such site, iReport.com, allows users to upload news-related articles and videos they have created. The site is run by CNN.com and becoming a “journalist” for the site involves nothing more than filling out a short form and providing an e-mail address. iReport.com does not screen, edit or fact-check uploaded content and makes not guarantee of the accuracy of anything on the site. It’s tagline is “Unedited. Unfiltered. News.”

In November of 2008, a first-time user of the site, identified only as johntw, posted an article in which he claimed that Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs had been rushed to the hospital after suffering a “major heart attack.” Johntw claimed he had gathered the information from a source who wished to remain anonymous but who was highly reliable. However, none of what johntw wrote was true.

The article was quickly flagged by another user and removed by iReport.com and denied by Apple within an hour. However, the false report continued to spread to similar news sites and blogs all over the Internet, causing Apple shares to fall. Hours later, Google Trends still categorized the topic as “super hot.”

Apple shareholders were already concerned with Jobs’ health after his bout with pancreatic cancer a few years ago. Reports about the damage to Apple stocks are conflicting, but stocks fell up to 10 percent that day, recovering slightly by the time the rumor was debunked by iReport.com and Apple. Apple ended the day down 3 percent.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is currently investigating the situation. iReport.com has been cooperative in the investigation and has unsuccessfully tried to contact johntw. So far his identity has not been uncovered by either CNN or the SEC.

The intentions of the user johntw also remain unknown. If discovered, intention to hurt Apple’s stock could warrant a case against the suspect by the SEC.

There has been much discussion over what this incident means about the validity and credibility of citizen journalism. One writer brought up the incident on a similar citizen journalism site, NowPublic. She wrote, “Some commentators claimed that the incident had damaged CNN’s credibility, and that it represented a failure of citizen journalism. But it was not citizen journalism that had failed; what the incident demonstrated was that people were willing to act on and rebroadcast an unverified report without first checking the facts.”

A writer for ReadWriteWeb wrote that the incident will most definitely damage CNN’s credibility.

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Works cited

-Karp, S. (2008). False Steve Jobs Heart Attack Report on CNN’s iReport Is a Failure of Open Systems. Publishing 2.0. Retrieved February 15, 2009 from http://publishing2.com/2008/10/03/false-steve-jobs-heart-attack-report-on-cnns-ireport-is-a-failure-of-open-systems/

-Nixon, R.(2008). False Report on Steve Jobs Heart Attack: 2008 in Review. NowPublic. Retrieved February 15, 2009 from http://www.nowpublic.com/tech-biz/10-false-report-steve-jobs-heart-attack-2008-review

-Quinn, M. (2008). Apple shares fall on false report. Lost Angeles Times. Retrieved February 15, 2009 from http://articles.latimes.com/2008/oct/04/business/fi-apple

-Scheer, D. (2008). Teen is said to have faked story about Apple’s Jobs. Bloomberg.com. Retrieved February 15, 2009 from http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601103&sid=ahAlYCNB4qVo

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